May 7, 2019

I (Eye), Robot?

Does Innovation Make Us Less Human?
Adam Thierer Senior Research Fellow

I became a little bit more of a cyborg this month with the addition of two new eyes—eye lenses, actually. Before I had even turned 50, the old lenses that Mother Nature gave me were already failing due to cataracts. But after having two operations this past month and getting artificial lenses installed, I am seeing clearly again thanks to the continuing miracles of modern medical technology. 

Cataracts can be extraordinarily debilitating. One day you can see the world clearly, the next you wake up struggling to see through a cloudy ocular soup. It is like looking through a piece of cellophane wrap or a continuously unfocused camera.

If you depend on your eyes to make a living as most of us do, then cataracts make it a daily struggle to get even basic things done. I spend most of my time reading and writing each workday. Once the cataracts hit, I had to purchase a half-dozen pair of strong reading glasses and spread them out all over the place: in my office, house, car, gym bag, and so on. Without them, I was helpless.

Reading is especially difficult in dimly lit environments, and even with strong glasses you can forget about reading the fine print on anything. Every pillbox becomes a frightening adventure. I invested in a powerful magnifying glass to make sure I didn’t end up ingesting the wrong things.

For those afflicted with particularly bad cataracts, it becomes extraordinarily risky to drive or operate machinery. More mundane things—watching TV, tossing a ball with your kid, reading a menu at many restaurants, looking at art in a gallery—also become frustrating.

Open Your Eyes to the Wonders of Innovation

In the past, there was very little that could be done about cataracts unless one was willing to undergo extremely dangerous procedures. The oldest type of cataract surgery (“couching”) involved the use of sharp instruments such as thorns and needles to rip the cloudy lens out of the eye. Unsurprisingly, blindness was a common result of this primitive practice. As medical techniques and instruments improved, doctors were able to perform more sophisticated and successful surgeries, albeit still with some risks because human hands were still doing much of the work.

Today, thanks to remarkable advances in medicine, all this is done in a few minutes with the assistance of laser technology. Better yet, patients get to choose exactly what sort of replacement lens they will have installed. I chose “multifocal intraocular” replacement lenses, which let me see near and far equally well.

When you have cataracts in both eyes, they usually perform the surgeries a few weeks apart to make sure one eye comes out alright before getting the other done. Both my outpatient procedures were quick, painless, and remarkably effective. Astonishingly, within 24 hours of having both surgeries, I tested at better than 20/15 vision, which is close to perfect. It was like regaining a lost superpower.

Am I a Cyborg?

My first-hand experience with the miracles of modern medical technology makes me feel even more strongly about what I do for a living. I have spent my life covering emerging technology policy and responding to tech critics, who have a litany of grievances about modern inventions. One common complaint is that today’s technologies are “dehumanizing,” or threaten to turn us all into some sort of cyborgs.

To be sure, my eye surgeries did indeed make me just a little bit less human. After all, I am walking around today with artificial lenses affixed to my eyeballs. Moreover, I previously had eye surgery to correct strabismus, which is basically a form of crossed eyes. Had I remained perfectly “human” or “natural,” I would still be trying to look at the world through two crossed eyes covered with cloudy lenses. No thanks, Mother Nature!  

Incidentally, I also have a metal plate and six pins in my ankle from a nasty compound fracture I sustained in the late 1990s. So, my foot isn’t completely “natural” either. But without those implants, I would not likely have walked properly again. Also, due to a combination of bad genes and poor dietary habits, my mouth is full of so many replacement teeth and crowns that I can’t even count them all. Without them, I probably would have needed dentures by age 40, just as my poor grandmother did once her teeth failed her for similar reasons.

Meanwhile, my left knee and right hip have been acting up in recent years, making me wonder if replacements may be needed down the road. Finally, my hearing isn’t so great either after years of abusing my ears at concerts and with speakers played at unhealthy volumes. (Turn down those headphones, kids!) I suspect some sort of hearing supplement awaits me in the future so I can continue to hear properly.

Enhancing Our Humanity

Given the medical procedures I’ve had done or might do, it’s fair to say that the critics are correct: I really am becoming more of a cyborg—part biological, part technological. But what of it? Certainly, my life and the lives of countless other people have been improved thanks to “artificial” improvements to our bodies.

As Joel Garreau noted in his brilliant 2005 book, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—And What It Means to Be Human, the history of our species in one of constant improvements to our health and capabilities through technological means. We have augmented our senses and abilities through the use of spectacles, hearing aids, artificial limbs, implants, and various other specialized medicines and treatments. We are living longer, healthier, less painful lives because of it.

Some critics respond by saying that certain “basic” technological improvements to human health are fine, or perhaps should even be subsidized and available to all. One era’s “radical” enhancements become the next generation’s human rights! We have seen that story unfold in the realm of reproductive health, for example. As Jordan Reimschisel and I have documented, in vitro fertilization (IVF) was originally met with hostility in the 1970s, with various authorities objecting to the idea of being able to “play God.” Opposition subsided quickly, however, as public acceptance and demand grew. Today, IVF is often covered by insurance plans.

Still, critics of newer technological capabilities tend to frown upon more sophisticated technological enhancements that could radically enhance our capabilities in ways that supposedly “dehumanize” us. There are always risks associated with new technological capabilities, but through ongoing trial and error experimentation, we find new ways to counter adversity and ailments—and yes, even overcome some of our inherent human limitations. We are not destined to become mindless automatons just because technology enhances our humanity in these ways. Indeed, there is nothing more human than building new and better tools to improve the quality of the lives of people across the globe.

We Can Cope with Change

Critics are fond of falling back on worst-case “technopanic” scenarios ripped from sci-fi novels, movies, and shows to explain how, if we are not careful, we are all just one modification away from creating (or becoming) Frankenstein monsters. We should heed those warnings to some extent, but not to the extent those critics suggest.

There are legitimate ethical issues associated with certain medical treatments and human enhancements. Genetic editing, for example, holds both promise and peril for our species. By modifying our genetic code, we can counter or even defeat debilitating or deadly diseases or ailments before they hobble us or our children. Of course, genetic modification could also be used in unsettling ways by parents or governments to create “designer babies” that have no choice in how their genetic code is altered before birth.

Ethical guidelines, and even some public policies, will need to be crafted and continuously updated to keep pace with these challenges. But, we must not let worst-case thinking determine the future of all forms of human modification such that the many possible best-case outcomes are discouraged in the process. That would represent a massive setback for the millions of humans, including the unborn ones, who might be threatened by debilitating ailments.

Just as technological innovation gave me (quite literally) a new outlook on the world, so too can it open up new possibilities for countless others. Each day brings inspiring news about how innovation is helping us overcome whatever ails us. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that, “[s]cientists have harnessed artificial intelligence to translate brain signals into speech, in a step toward brain implants that one day could let people with impaired abilities speak their minds.”

More modern miracles like that await us—so long as critics and regulators don’t hold back important innovations in medical technology. In the meantime, thanks to my new cyborg eyes, I have seven old pairs of reading glasses I no longer need, in case anyone wants them.

Support Mercatus

Your support allows us to continue bridging the gap between academic ideas and real-world policy solutions.Donate